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A new silent plane takes to the sky – what could this mean for drones?

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The clever scientists at MIT have brought us yet another incredible world-first: a plane that flies using no moving parts.

As a child, the leader of this silent plane project was inspired by the way the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek travelled through space.

Steven Barret, the leader of this project was inspired by Star Trek as a child

Wait a minute… isn’t a plane with no moving parts just a glider? 

Despite having no battery and not relying on the burning of any fuels, this invention is not a glider. It is a plane and it’s virtually silent.

The head of the project, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, Steven Barrett, says this invention: “…has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler and do not emit combustion emissions.”

The initial tests (which are viewable in the YouTube clip below) show that at this stage, the plane is only able to stay airborne for around 10 seconds and travel a distance of around 200 feet (60 meters).

It has a wingspan of 16 feet (5 meters), weighs five pounds (2.45 kilos) and flew at a fairly sluggish pace of around 11 mph (17 kph). These early tests are, however, a promising sign for emerging technology which could hold revolutionary potential for the airline and UAV industries.

How does it work?

The craft is propelled along by what is known as ionic wind, otherwise known as electric aerodynamic propulsion. The craft is designed to resemble a conventional craft with an array of thin wires at the front and aerofoils at the back. Ions are charged atoms or molecules. The wires at the front are set at a voltage of 20,000, which is strong enough to charge nitrogen molecules in the air, the aerofoils at the back are set at -20,000 volts. This creates an electrical field where the molecules travel from the positive to the negative, colliding with air molecules and creating a gentle thrust. Having no moving parts mean this plane is silent.

Does this mean silent planes and drones will soon be here?

Unfortunately, as it stands the researchers behind this study are unsure whether the principles behind this crafts flight would work on large crafts such as passnger planes. The project lead estimated it would likely be at least a few decades until such a technology was ready for those type of applications. Another limitation is that the higher the altitude of an aircraft, the less the strips are capable of supercharging the ions that create thrust. Those types of issues will need much further investigation and testing before the tech is ready.  Even at this early stage, indications are that ionic wind tech is better suited to smaller crafts and could be used in the near-term future for drones.

Story and video of the silent plane in action on page 2 

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